Despite the relatively recent demise of the iPod, the traditional standalone portable music player is still alive and kicking. Whether you want to conserve your phone's memory or you're a proper audiophile seeking the best portable player for your hi-res tunes, our pick of the best portable MP3 players on the planet will see you right.
Most casual listeners will rely on their smartphones for on-the-go tunes, but a dedicated music player will go significantly further in delivering high-quality and high-resolution audio from your pocket, even at the budget end.
Our expert team of testers have tried and tested many players from Apple, Cowon, FiiO, Sony and more over the years, but it's the premium Astell & Kerns that currently dominate our best list for their premium sound quality and gorgeous design. Below are the two best-value models in the company's lineup, sandwiching a more affordable Sony for those who can't quite stretch their budgets.
The quick list
Best portable music player overall
All you could ever expect or want from a portable music player at this level, the SR35 is an absolute stonker.
Best budget portable music player
It’s not perfect, but this affordable player delivers a mature, even-handed performance at an attractive price.
Best portable music player overall
The SR35 stretches the definition of ‘entry level’, sitting a rung or two up the ladder from the affordable Sony NW-A306 (below) and even pricier than the previous 'entry level' (and Award-winning) SR25 MKII it replaces. But there's no arguing with the astonishing level of performance you get from it, hence its current What Hi-Fi? Award win.
The excellent SR35 boasts many of the features that made its five-star, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning predecessor so successful – including three headphone outputs (3.5mm, 4.4mm and 2.5mm), native playback of MQA, DSD256 and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz files, 64GB of built-in storage (expandable by up to 1TB via a microSD card), and the neat ability to use the player as a performance-enhancing DAC between your wired headphones and, say, laptop.
There's not a chance of the SR35 missing a beat with the music you send its way. The five-star player has the punch and rhythmic drive to keep you tapping along to upbeat tracks, and the insight to draw you into the details of those calmer ones. The presentation is hugely likeable, with a tonal balance slightly on the rich side, and a combination of power and finesse that feels very mature for a source at this level that most headphones will get along just fine with.
Read the full Astell & Kern A&norma SR35 review
|Sound||A combination of power and finesse that feels very mature for a source||★★★★★|
|Design||We have always liked the player’s geometrically quirky aluminium casework and sleek, shiny finish||★★★★★|
|Features||Vast file support, 64GB storage (expandable) and integrated music services||★★★★☆|
Best budget portable music player
As a portable music player, the NW-A306 fits the brief perfectly. It's compact and fits in palms and pockets alike comfortably, and we love the scalloped textured back that gives us a good grip without sacrificing style.
The NW-A306's connections are minimal, but that's no bad thing: the USB-C cable lets you charge, transfer files and use the Walkman as a DAC, while the 3.5mm headphone jack can be used with a variety of good-to-great headphones. The available onboard storage is rather small in comparison to other players, but it is possible to expand the storage thanks to the microSD slot.
Internally, NW-A306 is packed to the gills with features: the hi-res file support is extensive and excellent at this affordable price, the full Android OS means it effectively operates similarly to a smartphone (for better or worse) and lets you download your favourite music streaming app, and it even supports LDAC and aptX codecs over Bluetooth.
The Sony player is adept enough to turn its hand to various genres and can even discern the differences in file qualities, while all sounding comfortable to listen to for long periods. It's a pleasingly detailed and clean performance. In fact, there’s a familial throughline from the high-end NW-WM1ZM2 player to the A306 in terms of how mature and evenly balanced it sounds. It can also play at loud volumes without ever sounding harsh or confused. We'd like more dynamic punch and drive to songs that need it though; the Sony can sound a touch reserved when a song demands outright fun or aggression.
However, this is a capable hi-res player worthy of your consideration if your budget doesn’t stretch to the more premium Astell & Kern SR35 player above.
Read the full Sony NW-A306 review
|Sound||Clear, detailed, composed sound, if a little restrained||★★★★☆|
|Design||Fits the brief perfectly. The player is compact and fits in palms and pockets alike with no fuss.||★★★★★|
|Features||Short on memory (32GB) but very well featured elsewhere||★★★★★|
Best premium portable music player
The superb A&ultima SP3000 certainly isn't for the casual listener. With a multi-thousand-pound price tag that puts it out of the reach of many, we'd understand if you wanted to dismiss it right off the bat.
If you really do value quality on the go, though (and have the funds to spare), the flagship SP3000 has to be on your shortlist. The high-end player is packed with useful features and built to the highest standards, even if it's a bit chunkier than your standard portable device. Bluetooth is on the menu, so you can use wireless headphones without a problem, and given the no-compromise nature of this design it comes as no surprise to find aptX HD and LDAC codecs on the spec list.
There's certainly no issue with file compatibility. The SP3000 can handle high-resolution files up to 32-bit/768kHz, PCM and DSD512, as well as MQA, all of which is thanks to the use of Asahi Kasei’s new flagship DAC chip, the AK4499EX. Elsewhere, A&K's engineers have worked to reduce internal noise via separate analogue with the aim of optimising the player's sonic performance.
That all brings us to the SP3000's raison d'etre, and this is where the premium player really, really shines. Across the board the A&K player has so much to recommend it, bringing together a tangible sense of musical insight as it coveys dynamic contrasts and rhythmic patterns with skill and intuition. Detail is abundant, while the muscular, taut bass helps anchor everything to provide a cohesive, meaty soundscape.
If you've got the money and you're passionate about sound quality (and have equally impressive headphones to partner it with), we'd wholeheartedly recommend the A&ultima SP3000.
Read the full Astell & Kern A&ultima SP3000 review
|Sound||A perfect balance of informing and entertaining. Exceptional.||★★★★★|
|Design||Nice to look at and use, if a bit heavy in the hand.||★★★★★|
|Features||Bluetooth, extensive file compatibility, ample storage and plenty more besides.||★★★★★|
How to choose the best portable music player for you
Whatever your budget, you will be surprised at what you can get for your money these days. Every player here supports MP3 and AAC files of course, but we can all do better than that in 2023. All of the models above also support high-resolution audio files, from 24-bit FLAC and PCM files and even DSD.
Some also add native MQA playback to that compatibility list, so you can listen to hi-res Tidal Masters through compatible players and playback downloaded MQA music in the best sound quality possible.
Have an extensive digital music collection? Many of these MP3 players have microSD memory slots, so your assembled throng of tracks and artists need never stop growing. Expandable memory also means you can keep all of your music at the highest quality possible, without worrying about those large file sizes taking up all of your player's storage space.
There are even MP3 players here that can double up as a DAC to enhance the sound between your smartphone/laptop and headphones/speakers. Some have built-in access to streaming services, too, while others have even more functionality that mirrors a smartphone's (for better or worse).
But all of the products in this list have one thing in common: excellent sound quality. And if you're here, that is probably the aspect that's most important to you in a portable MP3 player.
How we test portable music players
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers tests the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door, including the higher-end portable music players that might well be used in a portable hi-fi or desktop scenario.
These music players are placed in our pockets during the review period too, of course, so we can gauge how portable and easy to use on the fly they really are.
Most important in our reviewing process is that each product is compared with the best in its price and class. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we keep our Award winners nearby to enable comparisons between new products and ones we know perform highly in the category.
We are always impartial and do our utmost to make sure we are hearing every product at its very best, so we try plenty of different types of music (and music files) and give each plenty of listening time (and time to run in). We use a range of headphones at levels likely to suit a certain player, too.
It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a product has noteworthy features – such as battery life, built-in streaming services and DAC-performing abilities, in the case of portable music players – we always ensure part of our testing involves testing the claims made by its makers.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the entire team, rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we are being as thorough as possible. There is no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict. At What Hi-Fi?, we are proud to deliver honest, unbiased reviews – something we have been doing consistently for more than 45 years.
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